Over the weekend, gunmen attacked a vessel belonging to an oil services company in the Niger Delta, which resulted in the death of two Nigerian sailors guarding the vessel and the kidnapping of four expatriates. In response to the attacks, the Nigerian navy has dispatched a ship and a helicopter to the area.
According to the ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB), instances of piracy and armed robbery at sea are increasing in West Africa – most notably in Nigeria. If you look at the IMB’s Report for the Period of 1 January – 30 June 2012 (request a PDF here), you can see that there were 17 actual or attempted attacks in the first six months of 2012. This is compared with 10 attacks for the entirety of 2011 – and is trending towards the number of attacks for the same six-month period of time in 2007 (19 attacks) and 2008 (18 attacks).
Saturday’s attack came just days after the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) announced that the country’s crude oil production had reached an all-time high of 2.7m barrels per day. According to the NNPC’s group managing director, the increase in output was attributed to the security measures put in place by the federal government in the region, which had begun to yield positive results.
In the 2008-2009 time period, attacks on Nigeria’s oil industry as a result of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and other militant groups had become so disruptive that Angola overtook Nigeria as Africa’s largest oil producer for some time. However, the level of violence in the region has declined since the federal government’s June 2009 amnesty program. Nonetheless, residents of the region are concerned about how long the amnesty program will continue to be supported by the government, and what might happen to it if/when President Goodluck Jonathan is voted out of office or does not run in the 2015 elections.
On a somewhat related note, the NNS Andoni, Nigeria’s first domestically designed and constructed warship was launched in June. At 100ft long and reaching speeds of up to 25 knots, the Nigerian navy hopes that the NNS Andoni will increase its ability to deter or pursue pirates operating near the country’s offshore oilfields.
I am not aware of plans to construct other vessels in Nigeria. Regardless, whether Nigeria builds its own warships or commissions them from abroad, it will be important to pay attention to whether or not the government has allocated funding to maintain its fleet. In my experience, countries that do not budget for maritime security tend to have a poor maintenance culture, and their vessels quickly cease to be capable of getting underway on a regular basis.
Yesterday, the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre released its quarterly report on Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships, which highlighted the rise in pirate attacks in West Africa – mainly in Nigeria. While there were 10 reported pirate attacks in Nigeria for all of 2011, in the first three months of 2012, there have already been 10 attacks. Attacks perpetrated by Nigerian pirates have also been occurring elsewhere in the region, such as the one additional attack in neighboring Benin. Furthermore, incidents are occurring further away from land (in excess of 70 nm), which suggests that Nigerian pirates are using fishing vessels as motherships to increase their range of operations. This is a contrast to attacks perpetrated in the early days of Niger Delta piracy, which were actually cases of armed robbery at sea – cases where vessels were attacked in port or in Nigeria’s territorial waters.
The expanding range of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea emphasizes the ever-increasing need for not only increased maritime security capabilities of regional countries, but also greater regional coordination and information-sharing to address this transnational problem. However, in the Gulf of Guinea, there are many challenges associated with regional cooperation to counter maritime threats, including insufficient maritime assets (i.e., air, sea, surveillance, and communications) to pursue suspected pirates or respond to information that suspicious activity is afoot in their waters; disparities in maritime assets and capabilities due to a lack of continuous funding from land-focused governments; lack of appropriate relationships or communications mechanisms to share information on real-time cross-border illicit activity; and finally, the operational seam between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), whose member states are most affected by maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea.
I always appreciate opportunities to learn about these issues up close, and as luck would have it, I was able to do so when I observed a multinational counter-piracy exercise from an operations center in Douala, Cameroon last March. After the exercise’s pre-sail, I was offered the chance to ride the pilot boat from the port of Douala out to the point where the Wouri River meets the Atlantic Ocean in order to meet the NNS Kyanwa that had sailed down from Nigeria. The next morning, I awoke to reports that heavily armed pirates had sailed down from the Niger Delta, all the way up the Wouri River (past the Cameroon Navy base), moored their speedboats, walked into the Bonaberi neighborhood, and proceeded to rob two banks for a few hours before hopping back in their boats, speeding down the river, and heading back towards the Niger Delta.
Having traveled part of that path the day prior (although at a much slower speed than pirates in speedboats), I gained an appreciation for how long it took to travel between the port of Douala and the point where the Wouri meets the Atlantic. And although there had been three similar bank robberies in Limbe, Cameroon in September 2008, I was also pretty amused at the sheer irony of having several warships either in the port of Douala or anchored in the Atlantic for a multinational counter-piracy exercise…when a cross-border pirate attack occurred. Fortunately (or unfortunately for the pirates), Cameroon’s Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide (BIR) caught up with the pirates just before they entered Nigeria and either killed or apprehended many of them after a firefight.
In spite of the outcome of this attack, this story calls attention to the fact that individual countries cannot address this transnational challenge alone. In order to facilitate regional cooperation on maritime security, U.S. Africa Command and the Africa Center for Strategic Studies coordinated a Maritime Safety and Security Conference last month that brought together over 250 members of over 20 countries that are members of ECOWAS and ECCAS. This conference was a continuation of earlier efforts to increase regional cooperation, and allowed ECOWAS and ECCAS to respond to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2018 (2011) and United Nations Security Council Resolution 2039 (2012), which encouraged regional organizations to develop cooperation mechanisms to combat piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The conference ended with the signing of a communiqué to recommend that ECCAS, ECOWAS and their member states continue to develop a Memorandum of Understanding and Operational Agreement and submit it to their respective Regional Economic Community Secretariats for eventual adoption by their member states.
Clearly, regional states are recognizing the importance of a regional maritime security framework that would focus on coordinating each country’s maritime security operations and facilitate information-sharing on ongoing pirate attacks. And although these countries will have to overcome the aforementioned challenges to regional cooperation, we will continue to see examples of increased cooperation due to the increasing scope and scale of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
For additional information on maritime strategy at the level of the African Union (AU), check out this part of their webpage. Also, for a discussion of some of the efforts that have taken place within the AU and subregional organizations to address maritime threats, consult Toward an African Maritime Economy: Empowering the African Union to Revolutionize the African Maritime Sector.